09/16/2013 09:39 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Rejecting 'The Expected': One Woman Engineer's Story

I've been able to be who I want to be -- an engineer, an executive manager, a mother -- because I learned early not to shy away from anything that interests me.

When I was growing up in Massachusetts, my Dad loved to work on cars. Every time he headed out to the driveway, I was right there with him. One weekend, when I was 10 or so, he told me we were off to fix a transmission. "I can't do that," I said. He replied without a pause, "People do it every day. You can certainly do it once."

That straightforward advice -- and the fact that we did fix the transmission -- stuck with me. Half the challenge is overcoming apprehension and preconceived notions.

I learned that the things that might matter to other people -- being a girl, being young -- weren't real issues. Without those limiters, I discovered that I liked working with tools and my hands. And in high school, through a teacher who took us to a pool hall to show us momentum in action, I learned that I liked physics. At IBM, as I moved through my career, I found that I was good at taking on any challenge, communicating goals and inspiring other people.

Of course, I've run into people's preconceptions of me along the way, but I have had way too much fun doing things outside of what's expected of me to stop now.

You learn from others. That's one of the guiding principles of my career. Practically, for me, this has played out in the network of mentors, both men and women, who I've been privileged to interact with. These connections have helped me tackle opportunities to lead teams and navigate the waters between being a lab scientist and a manager.

I haven't followed any set path or cookie-cutter career goals. Instead, I had tenets that guided me along a journey that has so far been both fascinating and exciting. These tenets were echoed in a recent study, "Your Journey to Executive: Insights from IBM Women Executives," where more than 600 women executives in my company were surveyed. The study findings centered around three themes:

Be visible: Ninety-five percent of the women surveyed felt that consistent high performance was the most important factor in their career's advancement. My advice? Take on the critical visible roles that stretch, develop and give you the chance to demonstrate your skills. You don't have to know how things are going to turn out. You just have to commit to taking it on and making it work.

Plan your career: Actively seek out the roles that you want, working with your manager, instead of waiting for others to seek you out. To maintain visibility and influence, you need a broad network of advocates and teachers. I gained from my mentors a perspective of how I'm perceived, how they handle everyday challenges, and about what roles my suit me best. Whether it was the very strategic approach of my first mentor who was a woman or the football style one of a male mentor I had later, these insights were crucial to career choices I made.

Integrate work and life: In these days of work-at-home stretching into 16-hour days, this may be the most difficult to achieve, but flexibility provides an opportunity to balance both home life and the needs of your employer. Prioritize your time, and own the decisions you make and those priority calls.

Venues where you can share nitty-gritty advice with other women, such as how to work with a new boss or talk up a recent project, help keep you informed and vibrant in your career. For instance, I've been part of the Society of Women Engineers for years. These kinds of groups can give women new insights and a broader perspective of the opportunities available.

Because of my experiences growing up, some of the most rewarding work I do is with kids, sharing the wonder of science. I want these kids to see me as an engineer, to see that they too can do well in math and science, that they can be creative, and to try everything. Because becoming an engineer -- or anything else in life -- should be a decision you make, not something that neatly fits within a box of "the expected."

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